, SYDNEY, Oct 18 – Australia said Monday that vulnerable asylum-seekers including children would be moved out of detention centres into the community, easing tough policies after facilities came under major strain.
Prime Minister Julia Gillard said the government would move "significant numbers" of minors and families into accommodation run by church and charity groups under a more "humane" approach, with children obliged to attend school.
"I don\’t think it is the Australian way to have kids behind razor wire," she told a press conference in Canberra, adding that protracted detention could hurt a child\’s development and mental health.
Gillard\’s minority government, which relies on support from the left-leaning Greens, is currently in talks with East Timor and Indonesia, a major transit point, for a regional asylum-seeker hub to help stem the flow of immigrants.
Gillard said several hundred children and families would be moved from detention compounds by the middle of next year, without giving more precise figures. They will be under strict curfews and subject to regular checks, she said.
Australia will also build two new detention centres to help ease pressure on facilities struggling to deal with a surge in arrivals: around 100 rickety boats carrying 5,000 poor migrants have arrived this year, officials said.
The main centre on remote Christmas Island is so full that some people are sleeping in tents, while there have been riots and protests by inmates in Sydney and Darwin, in which one Fijian leapt to his death.
The government\’s new approach follows years of tough policies including former prime minister John Howard\’s so-called "Pacific Solution" of housing immigrants in remote foreign camps.
Immigration Minister Chris Bowen said Australia still had the toughest regime of mandatory detention in the developed world, but he had come to the view that there was a better way to treat children and families.
Under the new policy, the minister will review each family on a case-by-case basis before deciding whether they will be able to move into community homes under the supervision of his department.
Priority would be given to vulnerable families — such as those subjected to trauma or torture and women who were expecting babies, Bowen said.
"Children will be able to, and obliged to attend school normally and to live a normal life," he said.
The United Nations refugee agency welcomed the move but said it remained opposed to the mandatory detention of asylum-seekers.
"While we welcome positive moves to take children and some family groups out of detention, we hope that Australia will also consider exploring alternatives to detention for other asylum-seekers who pose no identified health or security risks to the community," UNHCR regional representative Richard Towle said.
Amnesty Australia, which last week warned of increased rates of self-harm and attempted suicide among asylum-seekers due to deteriorating conditions, said the government was propping up "an inhumane and failed system".
And the Sydney-based Refugees Action Coalition said the changes could result in some families ending up under the equivalent of house arrest.
"The government is not talking about ending detention, it is talking about extending community detention," spokesman Ian Rintoul told AFP.
The arrival of immigrants is a sensitive political issue in Australia, where many view boatpeople as "queue-jumpers" who should not be rewarded with residency for leapfrogging those who applied via the correct processes.